By Josh Steiber
Earlier this week, Michael Lind wrote an article for Salon about the misplaced energy in demeaning alarmists like Glenn Beck.1 Having friends and family who often revere the inflammatory rhetoric of Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, and others as a light in the darkness, the temptation to dwell on and ridicule these figures, ones that have even caused divisions between conservative commentators, is strong. Lind’s point is crucial though: the question is not primarily whether or not Beck’s theories are sane. Actually, the less sane they seem, the more likely it is that these theories are moves of desperation and the more important it is that we should stay focused on the actual issue.
First, however, a short recap of Beck’s theories: global unrest—from revolts in the Middle East to labor protests in Wisconsin—is the precursor to an international Caliphate (Islamic Rule). But on Friday, Beck’s alarms rang even louder; Code Pink, The Muslim Brotherhood, and other ideologically different groups are clearing the way not only for the Caliphate, but also for the “The Mahdi,” who is the prophesized Muslim redeemer. According to Beck, however, this figure is better known to Christians and End Times enthusiasts as “The Antichrist.”2
Does it bother me that Beck preys on his viewer’s fears and biases the way he does? Absolutely, but here is exactly where Lind’s cautions apply: “When progressive opinion leaders wait for conservatives to say something stupid and then pounce on it, they cede the choice of topics in national debate…”1
Sure, there are plenty of insults for Beck’s utilization of logic, study of history, and choice of “expert”3 sources that would apply to his performances. But simply slapping labels on Beck and his friends are a missed opportunity. Prepared for the insults, they’ll call it persecution, gain more sympathy from their followers and dig more entrenched battle lines.
If Glenn Beck wants to scream that the Mahdi is the Antichrist, I’d prefer to calmly tell him that I shook hands with the Army of the Antichrist than call him a nut. For those who haven’t been studying important issues like the Iraq War, one of the major political players throughout the occupation has been Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia. Translated as “Army of the Mahdi,”4 al-Sadr’s Jayish al Mahdi was the primary enemy of the infantry company that I deployed with to Baghdad from February 2007 to April 2008.
Despite the macho rhetoric of declarations like “we will not negotiate with terror,” my company signed cease fires and made deals with the very militia that killed our comrades. A Madhi Army member who led a bomb cell was arrested and destined for prison until we discovered that he was a leader in our district, so we released him and negotiated with him instead. More recently for al-Sadr himself, Reuter’s reports:
“A somewhat diminished maverick whose Mehdi Army was once viewed by U.S. forces as the greatest threat to Iraq, Sadr’s movement is making a stab at the political mainstream. Winning 39 seats in an election last year, its support was crucial in securing a new term for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. It has seven ministries in Maliki’s government.”5
The television network that helped inspire me to fight for democracy in the Middle East has not only changed its narrative by declaring that this region can’t handle democracy in places like Egypt, its franchise player is essentially saying that the government in Iraq is run by the Army of the Antichrist.
Too much is at stake to get too bogged down in reacting to Beck on his level. What he says is weakened far more by an understanding of history than a reflexive label. The Surge in Iraq, which I deployed in, was not successful primarily because of superior firepower; following the U.S.-provoked civil war with all its casualties and displacements, a weary population, including militia groups, was willing to negotiate for stability.6 The massive cost to the Iraqi population cannot be forgotten when pointing to groups like the Mahdi Army moving from hated enemies to major pieces of the new Iraqi government as the prime explanation for The Surge’s costly “success.”
To heed Lind’s call of being proactive in shaping the national dialog, knowledge can shape the future more than fear. Consider the lead up to the Iraq War: after Saddam was a key U.S. ally, he was branded with all kinds of alarming titles. When he was deemed worthy of attack (with evidence proving increasingly shoddier) many in this country, including myself, saw him as a monster who needed taken down with little thought of what would fill his place. Ironically, the Madhi Army helped to fill that vacuum yet the concept of the Mahdi is now being used to create a new surge of fear about other Middle Eastern countries.
Now, if a Beck follower tries to explain to me that the Caliphate is underway and will soon bring with it the Antichrist, I’ll refrain from saying something insulting. Instead, I will smile and say that I personally shook hands with the Army of the Antichrist and explain that the alarmist labels can’t work both ways. If followers of the Mahdi are to be feared, then aggression may lead to increased power, as al-Sadr’s followers can affirm. Conversely, if Iraq is going to be billed as a success, then the reality of why the violence has diminished must include both the cost of war and the explanation that even the militia named after the alleged Antichrist can become allies.
With a little bit of light, the boogeyman doesn’t seem so scary. And if the boogeyman needs to be as big as an Antichrist, then it probably means there is great value in looking at events like attack on unions in WI. This is exactly the kind of event, along with the full reality of the War on Terror, that needs to be discussed as we learn who is really “on the side of the common people.”